"What could it look like?"
This is the eternal refrain of Jess Solomon, the interim director of the Bromo Arts District, which is hosting two upcoming "community visioning sessions" this month, so that those within the district can sit down together and actively imagine how to improve the community.
After Bromo's founding director Priya Bhayana stepped down early this summer, Solomon was selected as the interim director. Her position, she says, "is about showing up and stabilizing organizations so that the new leader can come in and they can hit the ground running." Her term finishes up at the end of October, and she has a lot on her to do list before then.
"It was clear to me that we had to get input from the community," Solomon says about the impetus for these visioning sessions. When she came on board in early June, she got a sense of the district's current role and relationships within its surrounding community, which includes parts of Downtown, Seton Hill, and Mount Vernon.
"'Cuz quite frankly, we could operate in a silo, but it would be detrimental to everybody," Solomon says to me at Ceremony, the coffee shop right next to 520 Park, the upscale apartment building that opened in 2014. "I mean, I really realize that this is an ecosystem. [There are] so many players in this dense neighborhood with so much vested interest in what happens, and so we want to hear from everybody, not just developers."
"I go to a barbershop, that barber's been in the neighborhood 30 years," Solomon says. "He has stories, we need to hear those stories. We need his insight about what should happen on his block. The fact that we haven't is a disservice, I think."
When Solomon talks about "community" within Bromo, she refers to "people who come in and out of the district on a regular basis," like merchants, artists, galleries, cultural organizations—but also residents, who are not always part of the conversations about changes in arts districts.
"Often times we create these places that are 'destination places,' but what if we invited residents to look at their neighborhoods as destination places as well? We all win when that happens," she says. "There's so many histories and stories that we haven't unearthed yet." She's hoping to hear some of those stories at the visioning sessions.
"For me, to not acknowledge the existing cultural assets is bizarro," she says, noting the balance between preserving the place's history, supporting current organizations, and attracting new ones. She feels that this has been part of Bromo's ethos since it was formed three years ago.
Though she grew up in Cherry Hill, Solomon refers to herself as a "new kid"; she just moved back last year after living in D.C. for 10 years, where she began her consultancy business Art in Praxis, which uses art and creative practices as tools to help businesses work more efficiently. "And as a new kid, I can ask questions people might not wanna ask," she says. "I can just show up like, 'why we doing that? What's that about?'"
Choosing locations for both of the visioning sessions—at the Eubie Blake National Jazz and Cultural Center on Aug. 16 and Lexington Market on Aug. 23—was strategic, Solomon says. Both are what she calls legacy institutions; the Eubie Blake Center has been in its location on Howard Street since 2000 (though the organization had its origin in the 1970s under a different name), and Lexington Market has been in its location since construction began in 1803. Both represent the size of the district, too, she notes, with Eubie Blake on the northern end and the market on the southern end.
"There are lots of stories about people who literally built this neighborhood that we don't know about," Solomon says. "I see Bromo as this bridge between a vibrant history of what this space used to be and also what we can imagine it to be, personally, with equitable cultural development." She's been talking with Bromo's board about how the district can be a real resource for organizations, hosting workshops and guiding them to more sustainable operations. "[That] has more of a longevity," she says, "because everybody's doing wine and cheeses; we should be providing real things."
When we talk about arts districts, though, there's always the knotty issue of displacement and gentrification. Solomon sighs when I start to ask a question about the role that arts and culture seem to play in attracting developers.
"So how do you build but also include—and that's the question," she says. "There's some of us who are invested in exploring that." She says she's been talking about this with Bromo's board, too. "What is our role? What are we really trying to do? Can we throw the word equity in the mix? I think in the field, nationally, people are learning the language. I think practitioners are starting to understand that there's other possibilities. It feels emergent; I think the funders are also starting to recognize: What is the long term implications of this thing, of this artist dropping in, of this mural? Culture takes time."
She cites mentors and artists—such as Tucson-based Roberto Bedoya and Jenny Lee, who coined the term "creative placekeeping," a shift from the developer buzzword "creative placemaking," and Betty Yu, a New York-based artist activist who organizes groups against displacement and gentrification—who Solomon says give her hope that artists can help fight against these perennial issues of inequitable development.
It seems as though artists who actively participate in the neighborhoods and work with communities they occupy—not just with other artists, but with residents too—could soothe tensions and create welcoming space, while also making sure that everyone is a part of the conversation, and that everyone has a stake in this place.
I mention that some of the art spaces in or near this district have had break-ins over the past few months (including Platform, where I rent a studio space), suggesting some of the tensions that exist between some of these newer art spaces and residents who have been in the area for a while, and who might see some of these spaces as intruders. "What is the role of an art space, an arts incubator in this neighborhood where people are literally laying out in the street?" Solomon asks. "There's all kinds of dynamics and variables at play. We can't just be galleries, right?"
The first community visioning session takes place at the Eubie Blake Cultural Center on Aug. 16 from 6:30-8 p.m. The second one will be on the second floor of the Lexington Market on Aug. 23 from 12:30-2 p.m. For more info, visit bromodistrict.org.